SAN DIEGO — That is what the silly money was all about: the opening game of the National League Championship Series, with half a billion dollars’ value of Philadelphia Phillies superstars lifting the team to victory.
Zack Wheeler held the San Diego Padres to at least one hit, Bryce Harper homered to left and Kyle Schwarber homered to outer space. The Phillies won on Tuesday, 2-0, and can head home after Wednesday’s matinee with no worse than a split — and a likelihood to clinch the pennant at home.
That’s zipping far ahead, after all, but isn’t that what sports fans do? It’s once you own your hometown team, the one you rooted for as a boy at Connie Mack Stadium, as a young man at The Vet and as a billionaire at Residents Bank Park.
The promise of a day like Tuesday is why John Middleton — who sold his family’s tobacco business for nearly $3 billion in 2007 — authorized $527 million in free-agent contracts for the three stars of Game 1. Most of that investment went to Harper, whose arrival in March 2019 signaled the return of the Phillies as a team that was serious about winning.
“The need to do something special, to do something great, is a passion,” Middleton said in his box at spring training, in Clearwater, Fla., shortly after signing Harper for 13 years and $330 million.
“It’s not grounded in business logic, it’s not grounded in baseball analytics. I feel it’s your passion as a fan that form of fuels your ambition. It definitely fuels my ambition for this team.”
When a fan vows to spend silly money — shorthand for Middleton’s public vow to act aggressively and “possibly be somewhat bit silly” in free agency after the Phillies’ sixth losing season in a row, in 2018 — the choices usually are not at all times prudent. The Phillies chased some folks with strong track records, like the previous pitcher Jake Arrieta and the previous manager Joe Girardi, who weren’t the very best matches for the long run.
But when passion and projection match up right, you may import an ace like Wheeler, who signed for five years and $118 million in December 2019, about 10 months after Harper. Wheeler, who’s 30-19 as a Phillie, has allowed just three runs across 19 ⅓ innings this postseason.
“Once we signed him it was form of like, ‘Finally, let’s go, that is awesome, that is incredible,’” Harper, the 2021 winner of the N.L.’s Most Worthwhile Player Award, said after Game 1. “He’s very, superb. He just keeps continually convalescing annually.”
In five seasons with the Mets, Wheeler struck out Harper 16 times — still probably the most by any opposing hitter — and held him to a .205 average. And, indeed, Wheeler has only gotten higher with Philadelphia; his earned run average for the Phillies is 2.82 after a 3.77 mark for the Mets.
Wheeler credited the Phillies’ pitching coach, Caleb Cotham, for helping him manipulate his pitches higher.
“He type of paints an image for me of the way to hold the ball, the way to throw it, that kind of deal, relatively than simply gripping a slider and attempting to throw a slider,” Wheeler said after Game 1. “He’s type of sharpened my tools, and I feel that helped me get to the subsequent level.”
Wheeler also praised the Phillies’ defense, though he needs it lower than most pitchers. He led the N.L. in strikeouts in 2021 and fanned greater than a batter per inning again this season. He struck out eight Padres on Tuesday, and now San Diego must try to resolve Aaron Nola in Game 2. Nola has allowed no earned runs in 12 ⅔ postseason innings.
“You see it with a variety of teams which can be really good that find yourself form of going really far within the postseason — you’ve gotten that one-two punch after which you’ve gotten that third guy,” Harper said. “And we’ve been in a position to do this.”
Wheeler’s velocity dipped as Tuesday’s start went along, and he agreed with Manager Rob Thomson’s decision to lift him after seven innings. Wheeler has not pitched past the seventh inning since early May, and missed a month with elbow soreness late within the season.
Tommy John surgery cost Wheeler two full years with the Mets, who told him he needed to purchase his own tickets if he desired to attend their postseason games in 2015. Wheeler as an alternative stayed in Florida, where he was doing his rehab work, because the Mets marched to the World Series.
“It was tough to observe my friends, my teammates go on the market and play in those kinds of games,” Wheeler said. “I desired to be there. I desired to compete. I felt like I must have been there, but obviously the injury form of stopped that.”
Harper and Schwarber have been frequent playoff visitors; that is the fifth trip of Harper’s profession and the seventh of Schwarber’s. Last fall Schwarber helped Boston reach the American League Championship Series, and he signed with the Phillies — 4 years, $79 million — in hopes of more October success.
“You simply have a look at the roster and it’s super-talented, uber-talented,” Schwarber said. “You have a look at a fan base who’s hungry to win, and that was form of my biggest thing within the off-season: I just desired to go to a spot where I believed that we had a very good likelihood of winning and attempting to make deep runs. It was a fairly easy alternative once you’re it from my perspective.”
Schwarber, who led the N.L. in homers, with 46, signed on March 20. Two days later the Phillies made a good larger investment: $100 million over five years for outfielder Nick Castellanos, who got here alive within the division series with five runs batted in and a .313 average.
Signing Castellanos put the Phillies over the luxury-tax threshold for the primary time, and their total payroll, in line with Spotrac, is somewhat over $255 million — trailing only the Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees. All those teams won at the very least 99 games, and the Phillies took an uneven path to their 87.
But they made it to the postseason after a decade-long absence, an achievement in itself. Now the Phillies are capitalizing on their likelihood, getting what they paid for while pursuing something priceless.